I was a little startled by something I saw Monday morning on Interstate 70, about halfway between Hagerstown and Frederick. As I approached the Appalachian Trail footbridge that passes over the highway, I looked up and saw what appeared to be a cardboard cutout of Neil Parrott, the conservative Western Maryland politician who made a name for himself with a campaign against same-sex marriage.
He also tried to beat back the Dream Act, the law that grants immigrants in the country without documentation who graduate from Maryland high schools an in-state tuition discount at our colleges and universities.
This year, it was Parrott who led a petition drive against what he and other called the "Bathroom Bill," a law passed by the General Assembly to extend legal protections to transgender people. Parrott said the law would invite perverts to cross-dress and invade public restrooms. "If there is a man dressed in a polo shirt and jeans, he can walk into a girls' restroom if he sincerely believes he is a woman at the time," Parrott said. "It sets up a situation where sexual predators can take advantage of this bill."
So, you know this guy by now.
Turns out, what I saw on I-70 was the real deal, not cardboard. Parrott, running for re-election to the House of Delegates, held up a campaign sign and waved steadily to motorists beneath him.
It was a little jarring to see the delegate from Washington County up there by himself, inside the caged bridge. I mean, the guy's a political celebrity and king of the petition drive.
Of course, Parrott doesn't have a lot to show for his efforts. He can't claim any successes.
His three petition drives that led to ballot questions — to repeal same-sex marriage, the Dream Act and the redrawn (and ridiculous) congressional district maps — all went down to defeat in 2012 when voters upheld those laws.
His petition drive to force a referendum on Maryland's death penalty, finally abolished by the legislature in 2013, failed to muster sufficient support.
And the same thing happened with his drive against the "Bathroom Bill." Parrott couldn't get enough signatures to move it forward.
As a result, Maryland voters will not be bothered with either question this November.
So Parrott will have to find other cows to milk.
Or maybe he'll have to turn his attention to matters that actually affect the lives of people he represents.
Tim Rowland made that point this month in his column in the Hagerstown Herald-Mail, noting that Parrott's petition drives have generated more publicity (and campaign donations) for the delegate than jobs for his constituents. During a recent discussion of business retention among state economic officials and local business interests, Rowland reported, the predictable issues of education and taxes were raised. "And then a Volvo executive tellingly requested this of local lawmakers: Stop wasting time on bathroom bills, and get to work."
Of course, that's typical of Republicans, and goes back at least to the time of Calvin Coolidge, the forgettable president who in 1925 said, "The chief business of the American people is business."
But over the last half-century, Republicans also used wedge issues, some of them infested with racial politics, to get votes. Such issues are provocative and divisive. They make delicious fodder for AM talk radio and TV talking heads. But they don't work everywhere.
They certainly haven't worked in Maryland in the 21st century.
The Maryland Republican Party might have named Parrott its 2012 Man of the Year, but what did the party gain from his petition drives?
So here come Craig and Hogan, trying to focus on things that matter to voters — a flat Maryland economy, O'Malley-era taxation and the rising cost of state government. They're trying to get the party back to its roots, with traditional Republican emphasis on business and jobs.
Hogan has a particularly smart approach on this.
During recent interviews, he would not engage the subject of abortion, saying that as governor he would uphold the law of the land. He would not revisit the same-sex marriage debate, saying that Maryland voters already had spoken on that issue.
Though Hogan made some unsubstantiated, negative assertions about the Affordable Care Act, he did not recite the Republican mantra of repeal-and-replace. He instead focused on its costly and glitch-filled rollout as an example of the government waste and incompetence he would not tolerate.
On Common Core, the new national curriculum that has become a focus of controversy, Hogan said he endorsed "hitting the pause button" to make sure its Maryland rollout goes better than the ACA's.
Striking such moderate chords, avoiding what he knows to be wedge issues, keeping the GOP primary from becoming the kind of internecine battle that leaves scorched earth — if that's not winning politics, it's at least disciplined politics, and the kind that makes a Republican competitive in a blue state.